Mark Story: Tom Hammond says giving up Notre Dame football a mutual decision with NBC

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 18, 2013 

Tom Hammond was spending Wednesday watching the horses race at Keeneland. Judging by the tone of his voice, the longtime NBC Sports announcer was not having as much fun as he normally does at his hometown racetrack.

On Monday, NBC announced that Dan Hicks, known primarily for his work on the network's golf telecasts, would be the new play-by-play man for telecasts of Notre Dame football. That meant Hammond, who had been calling Irish games on NBC since 1992, was out of that job.

"Several people here at Keeneland have come up and asked me about it," Hammond said Wednesday. "It's been a little awkward for me."

In his mind, Hammond says, his giving up the call on Notre Dame football games represented a mutual agreement between NBC and him.

"I was trying to cut back a little bit," he said. "We came to the decision that it was easier to let somebody else do football than have someone try to pick up horse racing, track and field or figure skating."

On Monday, NBC also said that Hammond, 68, has signed a new contract with the network. Hammond says it is a four-year pact that will allow him to continue as the host of Thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown Series, as well as play-by-play man for figure skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and track and field at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Yet in the aftermath of Monday's announcements, Hammond says he was not prepared for how his no longer calling the Notre Dame football games would be played in the national media.

Michael Hiestand, the USA Today sports media writer, noted that NBC would not comment on why it made the Notre Dame announcing switch. "But while it is impossible to look up statistics on this, Hammond last season occasionally had difficulties correctly identifying players," Hiestand wrote.

Said Hammond: "I thought that was a little harsh."

Normally on college football Saturdays I'm covering a game, so I didn't see many Notre Dame broadcasts last season. The Tom Hammond whose work I've been familiar with over the years has always combined extensive preparation with an understated announcing style that allows the event being covered to take front and center.

If Hammond's game had slipped to the point NBC was uncomfortable with him on Notre Dame football, it makes zero sense that the network would keep him on for play-by-play of Olympic figure skating and track and field, two of its signature properties.

It could be that NBC, under the new ownership of Comcast Corporation, is trying to prepare for a generational transition among its on-air sports talent. Currently, the three most prominent NBC Sports play-by-play men are all on the north side of 60 — Al Michaels will be 69 in November, Hammond will turn 69 next month, Bob Costas is 61.

Hicks, who is married to ESPN anchor Hannah Storm, is 50.

There has always been a Cinderella element to Hammond's NBC career. The former sports director at Lexington's WLEX-TV, Hammond was hired by NBC as a freelancer to work the first Breeders' Cup in 1984.

He did such a good job, the network brought him on full time. Hammond has been with NBC ever since, at various times calling NFL and NBA games in addition to what became his staples: Notre Dame football, the Olympics and horse racing.

Yet in his native Kentucky, Hammond may have been best known for his three-decade tenure as the play-by-play man on the SEC's men's basketball syndication package. That gig ended in 2009 after ESPN won the rights to those games.

Now, Hammond is no longer broadcasting football or basketball.

"It will be strange not doing either one," he said. "Horse racing comes natural to me, but I had to learn figure skating and track and field. NBC more or less forced me to branch out, and I'm glad it did."

In the meantime, if you bump into Hammond in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby — he likes Florida Derby winner Orb, by the way — the broadcaster says you do not have to commiserate with him over "losing" Notre Dame.

"I'll miss doing Notre Dame games, for sure," he said. "But I just felt like it was time for me to cut back, and NBC was on board with that. I've got a new four-year contract, and I'm excited to do two more Olympics. So I'm good."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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